Since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, many have called for ways to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness. But there’s a wide and potentially dangerous gap between when a person starts experiencing mental problems and when our systems of medicine and law identify them as ill.
I know this firsthand.
My parents had seven children. I was the first, and Glenn, named for the astronaut John Glenn, was in the middle. We were a mix of personalities and abilities. Glenn was smart and athletic and dominated kickball and backyard basketball games.
About five years passed from the start of Glenn’s symptoms at age 14 to the psychiatric community’s recognition that he was a danger to himself. Those were years when he wouldn’t have shown up as a blip on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which bars gun purchases on the basis of mental illness only after an involuntary commitment or a court declaration of mental incompetence.
From a mischievous brother, Glenn turned darker: some drinking, some smoking cigarettes and pot. Our mother worried. Soon, he began hearing voices and expressing religious delusions. We were baffled and consulted doctors and family therapists, trying medications.
One semester break from college, I came home to find that Glenn had stopped drinking liquids about two days earlier. He was afraid the devil would enter his body through drink. My parents didn’t seem to realize that dehydration could kill him, and I pushed to get him help. The waiting room of an emergency psychiatric unit is where Glenn, our dad and I spent Christmas Day.
Glenn’s story began in the 1970s, before Columbine or the internet. Today, the nation’s social history of horrors has expanded such that Nikolas Cruz, who was indicted on Wednesday in the killing of 17 students and adults on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, commented online that he wanted to become “a professional school shooter.”
Can we continue to risk waiting years between the first sign of trouble and an FBI record that prompts a ban on a gun purchase?
Not if we want to stop the killing. “Red flag” laws in five states allow relatives, close friends and law enforcement officers to ask judges to issue “gun violence restraining orders” to temporarily seize weapons from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. In some cases, a police officer can seize a weapon on the spot and apply immediately after for judicial permission.
Law enforcement in those states say these laws are working. This week in Indiana, a family member reported that college professor James Stark had been threatening co-workers. Police went to court and received permission to seize his weapons. New York State Senate Democrats are pushing for a red flag law; better yet, we should enact this on the federal level.
Neighbors, teachers, classmates, acquaintances and local authorities were aware that Cruz owned guns, even idolized them, and posed a danger. If Florida had had a red flag law, authorities, family or friends could have gone to court for a warrant to remove Cruz’s guns, and the Parkland shooting might have been avoided.
Years ago, the hardest thing to accept about my brother’s schizophrenia was that he never would know the pleasures of a sane life the rest of his family enjoyed. Glenn has been living in a locked facility for more than a decade but will move to a freer living arrangement this spring by recommendation of mental health officials. I’m grateful every day that he doesn’t also have to live with the nightmarish guilt of a violent rampage like Cruz’s.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.